In the last line of the poem "No, I am not Yours," Barbara Jane Reyes (a Filipino-American poet) writes, "No, I am not anything that is anything I am not."
This line comes at the end of a long litany in which Reyes negates statements attached to Filipinos and this poem, which is the first poem in her chapbook For the City that Nearly Broke Me, speaks to the me who battles against stereotypes. I think of identity as I read Barbara Jane Reyes's work and I reflect on the diverse responses to my own presence in gatherings where Filipinos (while not that rare) are considered something of a curiosity. I have learned to accept curiosity and the inevitable questions that arise: Who are you? Where do you come from? Why are you here? What is life like where you came from?
Back when I was much, much younger I had a very good friend. This friend introduced me to works of fantasy and science fiction that I would otherwise not have read. She made me read Dune (which I don't really remember now—except for the sandworms). She made me read everything Tolkien wrote (which I do remember). She introduced me to the Pern novels (I think there were dragons), and lent me giant tomes written by Robert Silverberg (I think it was about some quest to be King).
I usually did a speed read through everything she gave me and when we saw each other at school, she would talk about the books and I would listen because I didn't really have very much to say. Back then, I never imagined that I would one day write fantasy and science fiction. We were both music students and mastering Chopin and Beethoven and passing my Theory and Counterpoint exams were more important than Silverberg's latest.
In our second year, my friend shifted majors and took up Creative Writing. When I asked her how she was doing in her Creative Writing classes, she told me her mentor said that while her work was very good, it was not Filipino enough. Her characters acted and spoke as if they had grown up and spent their lives in America or Europe, and her settings did not feel Filipino. I remember being quite indignant about that comment and saying something along the lines of: "How much more Filipino can you get than being born and raised Filipino?"
Looking back now, I have to think of how her work and the criticism put on it represent the split psyche that comes with being Filipino and the struggle a Filipino writer or artist undergoes in the effort to break free of the influences that would subdue the inner voice.
Perhaps I was lucky because I had studied under Lucrecia Kasilag, a Filipino composer, music educator, and National Artist. Tita King, as we called her, instilled in her students an understanding of how steeped we are in Western influences and Western culture. Our society is so drenched in the glorification of everything that is American that it has sometimes been necessary for white anthropologists to come to us and open our eyes to the value of our own heritage. (I wrote about this in another article after interviewing the Dutch former priest turned anthropologist, Antoon Postma, whose work among the Mangyan tribe is of great value.)
From Tita King, I learned to wade through the dead weight of imposed culture and the acquired prejudice against my own culture. Her passion for our indigenous culture helped me to find freedom in the indigenous self. Looking back, I know I was very lucky.
When I was at Clarion West, I wrote a jungle story. It was a jungle situated inside my head and I built that jungle and the animals inside it on the memory of a jungle that I'd played in when I was a child. The Pra, which is one of my favorites from my created characters, originated in that jungle and there was an order of life to the jungle which, as my classmates commented, didn't match up with our expectations of importance in a written story.
For all that it left my classmates in a state of confusion, this jungle story remains my favorite—not only because of its weirdness, but also because to me it represents principles of culture which are different from the principles of culture that we see built up in media, in books, and on film. It was perhaps my most daring experiment at Clarion West and it made me very happy.
Someone who read this story said that I should have written a more Philippine jungle—a comment that puzzled me no end since that person had never been to the Philippines (and I want you to remember that important line in Barbara Jane Reyes's poem where she says: I am not anything that is anything that I am not), and in the best response ever, Nalo Hopkinson asked me, "What were you thinking when you wrote this story?" (I think all creators want to be asked this question.)
I am not saying that this was the quintessential Filipino story (far from it). But when I was writing it, I ceased to care about what my readers (who were mostly white and from the Western Hemisphere) would think of it. I made a choice to step outside the rule box of what story is because I wanted to write something that was my own and that belonged to me. It wasn't a "Filipino" story (I'd written a bunch of those and plead guilty to upping the "exotic" element), it wasn't some deeply political or social story, and the energy inside it was different from the energy inside the other more mimetic works that I'd produced.
It did not adhere to anyone's expectations or cater to anyone's need to be reassured by my "Filipinoness." As I grow into myself as a Filipino writer in the genre, I recognize that my identity, my culture, the source where my work comes from is not American or British or European.
Today, I write in the same consciousness as I did when I wrote the jungle story. I'm not thinking of you, dear reader. I'm tapping into that place where the energy comes from and allowing myself to be true to the place that gave birth to and shaped me. This I do because I love the land that gifted me with eyes to see other worlds and other places and other possibilities, and I want to give back to that source.
Author's note: The chapbook mentioned here is a purchased copy. It is not a review copy.